Drawing on versatility: Why it's a good idea for designers to cultivate many illustration styles.

by Carlo Carino in ,


Versatility is one of the key virtues of a good designer. To a large extent, a designer's job boils down to storytelling. Every good design tells a story. They provide concrete information about products, people, or events. They also convey a sense of tone, attitude, history, or culture.

How well the story is told is largely dictated by the decisions a designer makes.

"Carlo in four styles"However, the number of decisions open to a designer are dictated by how versatile that designer chooses to be.

I call versatility a choice because it takes care and consideration. Also because it takes work to add skills to your repertoire. If you care about how well you tell a story through your visuals, then versatility is a must.

Which brings me back to drawing. If you're a designer, then you must be able to draw -- not beautifully or even accurately -- just enough to put your ideas to paper in a meaningful way.

Let me quote Douglas Bonneville of bonfx.com from his great post, "Why graphic designers should learn to draw."

All the elements of design are rooted in drawing, as is painting. Drawing is the fundamental skill of visual artists of any stripe. The better we draw, the better we paint, and the better we design, because drawing contains all the problems and pitfalls we must overcome as designers. If we never fully deal with the problems with a pencil, we never fully solve our graphic design issues with much cruder tools.

With that said, not all designers are illustrators and vice versa. Not unless we want to be versatile, that is.

An example

A large part of my work involves doing digital renderings for upcoming real-world projects. This is often accomplished with a combination of photography, Photoshop, and other digital tools. On projects like these, the story is a simple one: this is what 'Project X' will look like -- and it will look cool.

Sometimes, however, I'm tasked with conveying a more complex story: this is what 'Project Y' will look like, feel like, and how it will connect to its intended audience in an emotional way.

The best way to tell that kind of story is through an illustration. Or better yet, a series of illustrations, like storyboards.

This is where it helps to have a few drawing styles in your pocket. Because the style must fit the story.

If you're drawing a storyboard for a playground project, for instance, do you do a rough, dark, grungy abstract illustration? Or do you do one that's more akin to a child's grade-school drawing? How about something that looks a little more Disney?

The more styles in your arsenal, the more choices you have. The more choices you have, the more likely you are create a visual that tells the story in the most appropriate way.

Again, success in a project like this depends on how versatile you are.

One way to do it

There's no simple way to become a versatile illustrator. It's partly research — gathering examples of a handful of different styles, some of which might you might not even like at first.

Then it's a matter of copying what you see. Over and over.

I call this 'cracking the code'. Getting to the point where you can think about the logic and personality behind a particular drawing style.

Then do an original illustration while employing you're newly assimilated style. I cannot understate how eerie this feels the first time you do it.

Then do it again. Find another style, rinse and repeat.

Not a copy anymore

Don't worry about feeling like a thief, though.

The thing is, you might start with a copy. But given time, these new styles become infused with your personality. It's unavoidable.

It ultimately becomes just the way you draw. Only now, you're more versatile.


Taking control of e-mail anxiety

by Carlo Carino in


E-mail stress is real. I’ve lived through the anxiety of it and found that changing the way I think about e-mail has made me not only happier, but way more productive.

A 2007 study by the universities of Glasgow and Paisley found that one out of three workers felt extremely stressed out about the volume of e-mail they receive during the day and about the seeming pressure to respond to everything immediately. Some of the subjects felt compelled to check their e-mail as much as 40 times in an hour.

If you feel like this or think the pressure to check your messages is inter with your ability to enjoy your job or even your free time, then you might want to take a look at your own habits to see what you can do to relieve the stress.

You don’t have to live like that.

E-mail has evolved into something hideous in the last decade. It was once something harmless that we used to send light messages to a select few. Imagine this — there was a time when people used to smile every time they got a message.

 Today, as the primary way people communicate within companies and organizations, e-mail is both a blessing and a curse. Some of us have found healthy ways to deal with the demands e-mail presents. However, some of us have begun to view our e-mail like a deadly snake that will strike if we look away for even a second.

Reclaim your attention

Think about it only when you want to. Does your phone chime every time you get a new e-mail? Does your e-mail program display a new window and make a sound when a new message arrives? If so, turn these features off. 

Try not to respond to work e-mail on your personal time. There are always exceptions, but never let diligence and dedication morph into a constant state of e-mail paranoia.

For the most part, work e-mail should only be checked when you’re working. Don’t let e-mail become a leash that keeps you tethered to your office 24 hours a day. Every workplace has one employee who doesn’t have a life outside the office. Don’t let that person be you.

Give it time. This isn't new advice, but it has to be said. Most e-mail applications are set to automatically retrieve messages every five minutes — that’s 288 times a day. If you can, set your computer’s e-mail retrieval to manual, or at minimum to check automatically just once per hour. You’ll be surprised at how much you get done when you’re not being interrupted every five minutes.

Limitations are good. Set limits at how often you look at your mail. Try not to do it more than four times a day. I find that 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. are great times to check your mail during the workday.

The golden rule

Think before you send e-mail as well. If you don’t like the stress of e-mail demands, then don’t pass it on to others. If you feel it’s rude to call your coworkers about office business after hours, then why would you send them e-mail at those times?  If there’s anything you hate about the e-mail you get, then stop doing it yourself. E-mail unto others as you would have them e-mail unto you.